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    Blaze damages East Lake home

    A fire official says a short circuit in the garage likely sparked the blaze.

    By ED QUIOCO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 14, 2000


    EAST LAKE -- In the wee hours of Monday morning, Angel Vargas awoke to a frightening crackling noise coming from his garage.

    As the four-bedroom house in the Glenridge East subdivision began to fill with smoke and the smoke detectors began to blare, Vargas, 54, put his hand on the door to the garage and knew it was time to leave.

    "The door was hot so he said, "Let's get out of here,' " said his wife, Gladys Vargas, 53.

    Mrs. Vargas grabbed their 8-year-old bichon frise, Casper, and ran out of their house on Windermere Drive. Standing outside, the couple watched as 25-foot flames shot out of large holes in the roof of the garage and the side of the house.

    "I just want it put out," Mrs. Vargas recalled thinking as she watched the blaze. "I said, "God, please get the firemen here before it spreads everywhere.' "

    Minutes after neighbors called 911 at about 2:30 a.m., firefighters arrived and answered her prayer. But the damage had been done. The fire caused at least $100,000 in damage, said East Lake Fire Marshal Jeff Malzone.

    The garage was gutted and the flames had crept through the attic and caused major structural damage, Malzone said. The rest of the home had heavy smoke and water damage.

    Still, things could have been worse.

    "I'm just glad they are okay because when you get fires like that and you are sleeping . . . man, those are dangerous," Malzone said. "It was lucky it didn't kill them."

    Malzone said an electrical short circuit in the garage likely started the fire. He traced the fire to a workbench. A radio, a fan and a lamp -- all three plugged into a socket -- rested on the bench, and one of the items likely started the blaze.

    When daylight broke, the extent of the damage was clear.

    "Nothing could be worse than this," Mrs. Vargas said as she looked at the house Monday afternoon. "It hurts."

    A 1998 Toyota van and a gold 1970 Pontiac GTO that was Vargas' pride and joy were unrecognizable. Both were in the garage during the blaze. The intense heat shattered the windows of the van, melted one of its tires, gutted its interior and melted the taillights into thin plastic strings and blackened clumps. The GTO was just as charred.

    The Vargases' new white garage door was cut in half by firefighters to get into the garage. There were gaping holes at the top of the garage where the flames had punched through.

    Mrs. Vargas said the light pastel colors of the home's interior were stained by the soot and smoke. The couple had made a number of improvements to the 11-year-old house, such as putting wood floors in the family room.

    "That's what kills me; you do this and you do that for your home, and then seeing it like this," she said. "It breaks my heart."

    The Vargases' son Christian, 25, helped his parents sort through their possessions Monday. With the help of some friends, they packed pictures, albums, paintings and other items into cardboard boxes and stored them in a Portable On Demand Storage container on the front lawn.

    The home is insured, but it will not be livable until the major repairs are done.

    According to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office, the home is valued at $150,800, but that is typically lower than market value.

    Malzone said he recommends that people install smoke detectors in their garage because of instances like this one. The blaze had been burning for a while before the smoke was thick enough to set off the detectors in the home.

    Mrs. Vargas said she was not sure where the familywould stay: either with friends in the area or with their son, who has an apartment in St. Petersburg. Standing in front of the burned home, Mrs. Vargas' somber mood turned to glowing pride when she spoke of Christian Vargas, a Prudential financial adviser, and his sister, Jennifer, a second-year student at the University of Florida.

    Both graduated from East Lake High School, where they excelled academically, she said.

    The burned cars were in stark contrast to the manicured lawns and the well-kept homes of the neighborhood. David Hosking, 47, who lives across the street, spent the day helping the couple sort through their belongings.

    He said that after he was awoken by Jetta, his 10-year-old German short-haired pointer, he heard loud popping sounds coming from his neighbor's house.

    "My dog started to go crazy," Hosking said. "Then we heard things popping like aerosol cans going off."

    The blaze was startling because it happened in the middle of the night when everyone was sleeping, he said.

    "It makes you think," he said. "We'll definitely do a little assessment on our fire preparedness."

    - Staff writer Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or quioco@sptimes.com.

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